How Dow Chemical and Boise are taking aim at plastics

Dow Chemical is helping Boise launch a program to collect residents' plastic trash and ship it to a plant where it will be converted into diesel fuel.
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Dow Chemical is helping Boise launch a program to collect residents' plastic trash and ship it to a plant where it will be converted into diesel fuel.

Dow Chemical is one of the world’s biggest producers of plastics and packaging. So it may come as a surprise that the company is working with Boise, Idaho, and other cities to divert plastic waste away from municipal landfills, to factories that will reuse it as fuel or repurpose it into new products.

For Dow’s Packaging and Specialty Plastics unit, that means supplying Boise with several hundred thousand bright orange Hefty bags that the city’s 223,154 citizens can use to stash juice pouches, candy wrappers, plastic dinnerware and other plastic disposable items that are not recycled. The move will help the city figure out what to do with plastic waste that it can no longer ship to China.

"We know that consumers want to be able to keep plastics out of the landfill," said Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director at Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics. "They don’t like throwing away the packaging when they’re done using it. We’ve created this program to facilitate the collection of these materials so they can be put to beneficial use."

Americans throw away tens of millions of tons of plastic each year, most of which ends up in municipal landfills, and some of which makes its way into the nation’s waterways.

Nearly one-fifth of the 136 million tons of municipal waste that is dumped in landfills each year is plastic, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The program is similar to efforts by rival chemical giants, such as Braskem, of Brazil, to address the problem of plastic waste buildup from the companies' products. Braskem supports plastic recycling efforts in Brazil and recently announced plans to produce painting kits using recycled plastic.

For Boise, the goal is to distribute the orange Hefty trash bags to about 73,000 households, explain to residents how to use the bags and what to fill them with, and then ensure the bags are picked up at the curb and delivered to a plant in Utah, where the plastic will be converted into fuel. The fuel can be used to replace conventional diesel.

The program will allow Boise to continue to collect residents’ waste plastic and do something positive with it, after the city’s longtime recycling provider said it would no longer accept many plastic items that customers were used to putting in their blue recycling bins.

Cities and towns across the United States similarly have struggled to find a way to recycle their plastic waste, after China announced last year that it would stop importing 24 types of foreign waste and would tighten its standards for stray items that find their way into bales of scrap plastic and other materials.

"This is an innovative solution that allows us to turn a bad situation into something quite positive," said Boise Mayor David Bieter.

In addition to the Hefty bags, Dow Chemical is giving Boise a $50,000 grant to help the city launch the program. Dow awarded Cobb County, Georgia with a $50,000 grant last year to jumpstart its own plastic waste reduction program.

This year, Dow will award another round of grants totaling $100,000 to U.S. communities that want to start their own plastic waste reduction program. The company did not say how much it would award winning cities. 

The non-recyclable plastics that Boise will collect from residents will be shipped to a Salt Lake City plant run by Renewlogy, which will convert the waste plastic into diesel fuel. Renewlogy’s technology uses a depolymerization process to convert the plastics back into their basic molecular structures. The result is low-sulfur fuel, which costs about $30 per barrel to make, and which can be sold for about $70 a barrel, according to Renewlogy. The fuel, when blended with other fuel components, can be used as regular diesel, for vehicles, heavy equipment and other motors, according to Renewlogy and Dow.

Diesel fuel currently retails for about $3.10 a gallon, on average, or more than $130 a barrel, according to the Energy Department

Before helping Boise, Dow worked with Omaha, Nebraska, to start up a plastic waste reduction program there.

In that initiative, Dow provides orange Hefty bags for the city to distribute to residents to stow their plastic waste and place at the curb for trash and recycling pickup. The plastic waste is sorted and then shipped to a cement factory, where it is used as fuel to generate power. The plastic is burned to generate energy for the cement factory.

The program has faced criticism from environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, the  Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives (GAIA) and the Sierra Club, which object to the practice of burning plastic to reduce waste because it can result in the production of toxic chemicals and other pollution.